Friday, 27 February 2015

The Real Tudors ... Masters of Propaganda and Spin ...

Now I have to 'fess up: I'm in withdrawal.

The BBC's totally splendid Wolf Hall season has finished and I am SO going to miss my weekly fix of Mark Rylance's superb Cromwell. Wasn't he fabulous? So wily and self-restrained with more than a hint of violence tucked away with that stiletto blade he kept hiding up his sleeve. I don't think there was a weak member in the entire cast. They were all brilliant.

Feeling slightly sad about the end of the season I took myself off yesterday morning to the National Portrait Gallery where the exhibition The Real Tudors is winding up. Sorry peeps but it finishes on Sunday so there's not a lot of time left if you want to trolley over for a gander yourselves.

Now, first off, I have to take issue with the NPG's title for the exhibition: the Tudors were the masters of spin and I feel that it ought to have been called the Tudors as they'd like to have been seen. Honestly, this lot could have taught the image-manipulators of today a PR trick or two.

The second big point is that they haven't included anything by the great court painter Hans Holbein, who crafted the great, iconic images of the age. Waldemar Januszczak argued recently that our enduring fascination with the Tudors has grown out of the fabulous images that Hans Holbein created, which have provided us with a vivid window into the life of the time. I think he's got a point, which makes the omission of Holbein from the Real Tudors feel as though something important is missing.

That said it's an interesting exhibition with some great images to savour.

They start off, as you'd expect, with the founder of the dynasty, wily old Henry VII.

His portrait looks strange to me: the head seems too big for the shoulders. The rose he's clutching in his right hand appears to be the red rose of Lancaster, which later morphs into the red and white Tudor rose in the portraits of his successors as they gilded the legend of how they were the great consolidators who united the warring factions of Lancaster and York. 

Apparently this is the oldest portrait in the National Portrait Gallery's entire collection. The inscription tells us that it was painted on 29th October, 1505 on the orders of Herman Rinck, the agent for the Holy Roman Emperor. The story was that, after the death of his Queen, Elizabeth of York, Henry had his heart set on marrying Margaret of Austria, the widowed Duchess of Savoy, and had opened negotiations with her father, the Emperor, Maximilian I. As was the custom with the great and the good in those days a portrait was sent so that Margaret could get an eyeful of what might be coming her way. The marriage negotiations came to nothing, but Margaret got to keep the painting. 

Also on display beside the portrait is the head of Henry's funeral effigy. When he finally popped his clogs they had a life-sized effigy made to go on top of his coffin for the funeral procession. The face of this effigy was moulded from a plaster cast of the dead king's face. He looked surprisingly animated and personable for someone who was recently deceased.

The exhibition moved on to Henry VIII, and we saw him strutting his stuff with that famous pose immortalised by Holbein, but shown in a copy made by Holbein's studio, and on loan from the National Trust. Isn't he the very image of royal power and majesty? Jaw set with determination - or, maybe just a hint of stubbornness, leg's planted confidently apart in a masterful stride and eyes staring straight out at us, demanding that we bow to his kingship. In the course of just one generation the royal image-makers have come quite a way from the awkward portrait of his father, staring meekly out of the frame in the hope of snaring a bride, to this image of kingly virility.

And then we have the Mini-Me image of Edward VI painted in the same masterful stance as his father.

As the mother of a nine year-old boy I was moved by the play-acting of the nine year-old Edward, trying to fill his father's shoes, and so vulnerable to the machinations of his Uncle Seymour, who reigned in his place as Regent.

There must have been huge fears and concerns for the safety of the realm when a child took the throne, but this portrait seems to have been conceived to reassure everyone that the boy was a chip of the old block, and that England would be as safe in the hands of the son as it had been in the hands of the father.

After Edward came the austere Catholicism of his half sister Mary. Her images seem to have been forged to convey the sincerity of her strong Catholic faith, during a time of huge religious upheaval. Edward had been a Protestant Evangelical in a way that made his father, the sponsor of the English Reformation, look moderate, and ,with the connivance of his Seymour relatives, young Edward consolidated Protestantism as the state religion. He worried that this work would be undone if the Catholic Mary, or the apparently disinterested Elizabeth, should take the throne and, in a bid to protect his legacy he wrote them out of the succession in his will, nominating his cousin, the devoutly Protestant, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir. Mary, of course, was having none of this. On her brother's death she raised an army and Lady Jane was ousted after only 9 days as Queen.

They were turbulent times, and Mary's portraits depict her as a pious woman with a serious purpose. To my eye she's a bit dowdy by comparison with her wonderfully flamboyant sister, Elizabeth.

Here she is (below), painted in 1554 by Hans Eworth. Do you see that fabulous pearl she's got round her neck? That's la Peregrina,  one of the most famous pearls in the world. It was found originally by an African slave on the island of Santa Margarita in the Gulf of Panama. He gave it to the administrator of the Spanish colony, and was rewarded with his freedom. The pearl made its way back to Spain and into the hands of the future Philip II, who presented it as a love token to Mary. After Mary's death it was returned to the Spanish Royal family whose women wore it for another couple of centuries before it fell into the hands of Joseph Bonaparte. In 1969 it was bought by Richard Burton for his great love, Elizabeth Taylor. When she died it was auctioned off by Sotheby's in 2011 for a cool US$11 million.

Anyway I'm getting distracted by the bling. Back to the portraits. 

My favourite Tudor is unquestionably the Virgin Queen, or Elizabeth the Great, as I think she should be referred to. And her portraits deliver spin and dynastic propaganda in spadefuls. Elizabeth's personal motto was semper eadem, always the same, which must also have been the instruction given to her portrait painters who never allowed her image to age. 

And here in all its splendour is the Armada portrait, painted to celebrate England's victory over the Spanish Armada. 

This portrait is laden with strutting triumphalism. It oozes out of the brush strokes. Elizabeth's right hand rests delicately on the globe. Here she's not just Queen of England. With the vanquished Armada floundering in stormy seas over her left shoulder, she's the Queen of the Waves and all the World. And it's not just Spain that's in the firing line here: this is painted as a vindication of her Protestant faith. It's proclaiming that God was with her, and her newly Protestant kingdom. Remember that at this time the Holy Roman Emperor was busy telling anyone who would listen that Elizabeth was illegitimate, a usurper with no proper claim to the throne and a heretic to boot, adding that it would not be a sin to bump her off. No English monarch - until the ill-fated Charles I - lived in greater or more constant danger than Elizabeth, but in this painting she stands victorious and undefeated, overcoming the very worst that her many enemies can throw at her. This, my friends, is Girl Power as we've never seen it before, or since. 

If you get a chance do go along and take a look. I understand that they're going to include the paintings in a larger scale exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris next month. You can find the link to the Parisian exhibition here: Les Tudors. I see they've given the whole thing a racy new French title, Les Tudors, as opposed to Les Vrais Tudors. Maybe it was all just a subtle case of English humour and those clever curators down at the NPG were being ironic when they suggested that these were the Real Tudors.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday Finds

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A historical knitting song from a time when normal folk didn't know numbers ...

Have you ever stopped to consider how, for much of our history, most of us could neither count nor read? And can you imagine the problems that must have created for anyone trying to knit even a semi-complex stitch pattern?

Labourers used to count on their fingers using five sets of four fingers to make a score of 20. And, to keep them focussed on where they'd got to, they developed counting rhymes. There were different rhymes depending on what they were counting, and depending on which part of the country they were in. Last night I was reading Food in England by Dorothy Hartley. She quoted this example of an ancient counting rhyme:

... eni, deni, diny, dass, catla, wena, wyna, wass ...

Now this struck me as being very similar to some playground rhymes that children still use today.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Catch a tiger by the toe ... . 

I wonder if this modern-day rhyme grew out of some universally-known counting rhyme used by our ancestors to keep tally on their sheep.  Maybe we're listening to the echoes of our distant past in the playgrounds of today.

I did a little bit more research on why they counted to 20 using multiples of four rather than just 10 with multiples of five for the number of digits on each hand. It turns out that these rhymes originated in the Celtic lands because Celtic languages traditionally did not count individual numbers above 20. You'd get to 20 and then start counting twenties.

My favourite counting rhyme comes from Teesdale, where it was traditionally used to keep tally on sheep. This is how it goes:


Isn't it a delight to say out loud? If you say it, counting on your fingers as you go, you can see how the repetitions work over four fingers with a thumb, and the new count kicking off after each thumb. It's easy to imagine the shepherd doing the count and striking off his digits as he goes.

A similar knitting song was the subject of an article published in a literary magazine called Notes and Queries in September 1863. The correspondent reports that in Wensleydale the local ladies had a knitting song that they repeated as they worked, which was a local version of the Teesdale numbers. The correspondent continues: Though it simply consists of numerals up to twenty, it is most curious; and seeing it is in the Norse language, must have lingered in the Dale a thousand years. 

The ladies of the Dales were using the same system to count their stitches as the shepherds used to count their sheep.

The article also mentions the account by Betty Yewdale of how she and her sister were sent from Langale to Dentsdale in Yorkshire to learn how to knit socks. Whilst they were there they sang this song as they worked at every needle:

Sally an' I, Sally an' I,
For a good pudding pye,
Tea hoaf wheat, an' tudder hoaf rye,
Sally an' I, for a good pudding pye. 

When they'd reach the end they'd shout off and repeat the rhyme for the next needle using another person's name. Now imagine you're there, knitting socks on double ended needles: three needles with 15 or 20 stitches per needle being worked by a fourth. If you're a reasonably quick knitter Betty's song would more or less last for the 15 or 20 stitches on each of your needles. It's easy to imagine the knitters singing away, finding a rhythm in their work that matched the meter and rhythm of their song. And, for me, it's just a little bit thrilling to find that same rhythm in my own work today as I labour over a pair of socks on double-pointed needles.

If you'd like to read the account from the magazine you can find it here:  Betty Yewdale's Knitting Song on Google Books.

All the best for now and happy knitting,

Bonny x

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Fisherman's Rib Pom Pom Hat ...

I've just finished a pom pom hat to match the Fisherman's Rib Scarf that I posted a couple of weeks' ago.

And here it is, beautifully modelled (below) by my favourite caterer's size pickle jar. I'm having a bad hair day, so I thought I'd substitute a large pickle jar for my own fair noggin. I always feel like a total numpty when I have to take pictures of myself. I know this is the age of the selfie ... but not today ... not for me.

My love affair with Fisherman's Rib continues to burn brightly. It's such a great stretchy stitch with a lovely drape. I've got a nice over-sized boyfriend's cardigan idea gestating at the back of my mind. It would be a great stitch to use to create a wonderful casual cardigan for keeping cosy on the nippier days of spring. Maybe I'll start off with a mini-me version for my son, Emi, first.

Anyway, back to the present and my pom pom hat. I've used the same colours as I used for the scarf, which are from the beautiful Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran range; they are the wonderful buttery cream that is colour number 300101 and the very gently blue/grey (they call it silver) that is colour number 300202.

Close up of the icord cast-on edging

I used an icord cast-on for the bottom edge of the hat (see close-up photos above and below), which has a tighter tension than the Fisherman's Rib, and, as a result, replaces the normal rib that would be used to hold it on. If you'd like to make it bigger or smaller you can simply add or subtract the number of stitches that you need to get your size.  I have a really big head - well, really big relative to the proportions of all my other bits. It measures a whopping 22 inches (56 cm) in circumference, and this hat is the perfect size for me. If you want to change the number of stitches you'll need to bear 2 things in mind:

1. Fisherman's Rib must be repeated over an even number of stitches; and
2. to decrease your Fisherman's Rib at the crown you need to come down to a number of stitches that is a factor of six so that you can work the knit 3 together, purl 3 together decrease without messing up the rib on the uppermost part of the crown. It doesn't matter if you've got a couple of stitches left over as long as you continue to work them in rib whilst you work the shaping. It's not brain surgery, and it doesn't need to be totally precise as long as you hold the rib pattern.

I started off by casting on 76 stitches using the icord  cast-on method, and marked the end of the row with a piece of wool in a contrasting colour, so that I'd know when I'd finished one row and started on another for the pattern.

Do you know how to do icord cast-on? It's a really whizzy way to create a fancy edging when you cast on, and it's easy once you get your head around it. I find it easier to cast the stitches on using a pair of straight needles, and then transfer the finished number of stitches onto the circular needles to knit the body of the hat.

Basically you need to cast on 3 stitches.

On the first row increase by knitting twice into the first stitch. You will end with 4 stitches on the right hand needle.

Slip the last three of these stitches (with the live-end of the wool) back onto the left needle, leaving one stitch on the right hand needle.

Knit into the front and back of the first stitch on the left hand needle, pulling the live-end of the yarn across the back of the three stitches on the left hand needle. Knit the remaining 2 stitches on the left hand needle.  You will now have 5 stitches on the right hand needle. As you carry on, pulling the live-end of the wool across these last 3 stitches, you effectively pull them into the tubular shape that forms the icord, as you close the cylinder with the tension of the wool being pulled across to begin the next row. It forms a garter stitch as all the stitches are knit in the same direction without turning.

Slip 3 of those stitches closest to the live-end of the wool back onto the left hand needle and carry on until you have a total of 76 stitches knit onto the right hand needle.

Slip all of the stitches onto your circular needle to knit the rest of the hat. I used a 4 mm, 20 cm cord circular needle.

The foundation row is a plain knit 1, purl 1 all the way around. You need to join the two ends of your straight row for the first stitch, making sure that you've got the knitting straight before you make the join.

The Fisherman's Rib  pattern starts on the next row.

Row 1: Knit 1 Below, Purl 1 all the way around. With the Knit 1 below you're knitting into the loop of the stitch on the previous round, just like I did when knitting the Fisherman's Rib Scarf pattern.

Row 2: Knit 1, Purl 1 below all the way around. With the Purl 1 below stitch you work a purl stitch into the loop of the purl stitch from the previous round.

Repeat Rows 1 and 2 until you are ready to shape the crown. I kept going until my hat was 17 cm long (including the icord bit). I was aiming for a snug fit with a perky pom pom perched high on the crown of my head.

To shape the crown:

This will be easier to work on a set of double-pointed needles. I also like to use needles that are a size smaller to keep the tension consistent over the decreases, so I slipped my work onto a set of 4, size 4 mm, double-pointed needles to finish it.

Row 1: *K3 tog, P1, K1, P1*. Repeat from * to * 12 times to the last 4 stitches, and rib those last 4 stitches as normal. By the end of this row you should have 52 stitches.

Row 2: Work in the normal rib pattern.

Row 3: *K3 tog, P3 tog*. Repeat from * to * 8 times to last 4 stitches, and rib those last 4 stitches as normal. By the end of this round you should have 18 stitches.

Row 4: Work in the normal rib pattern.

Row 5: *K3 tog, P 3 tog*. Repeat from * to* all the way around. By the end of this round you should have 6 stitches.

Draw the wool through the remaining 6 stitches with a darning needle, and darn in all your loose ends. Make a pom pom in contrasting yarn, tie it with the main colour yarn and sew it on top. I've explained how I make pom pom on the Fisherman's Rib Scarf pattern if you'd like any more information on the fine art of pom pom making.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Osterley Park's snowdrop drifts ...

Yesterday Emi and I headed over to Osterley Park with Maxi, the Wonder Dog, for a bit of a race around. It was a truly glorious morning: blue skies and sunshine with the mercury pushing up towards something approaching a hospitable temperature. It felt like maybe, just maybe, spring had sprung.

I've written about Osterley Park many times before. It's our local National Trust property, and I absolutely love it. It's where we come when we need a spot of fresh air and don't want to travel very far to inhale it. 

After we'd given the Wonder Dog a race round the park we decided to head into the gardens to see what how the spring flowers were getting along. 

We were delighted to see drifts of snowdrops encircling the trees.

They really were pretty. I think we'd inadvertently caught them at their best.

I love the snowdrops. They make my spirits soar. After the long haul of winter and the dreary grey of January they are such a welcome sight. Much as I love them, however, it would never occur to me to pull some and bring them inside. I remember as a child my grandparents' lawn used to turn white with snowdrops. They'd been growing there since forever and had spread around this way and that until they covered the grass with their floral snow, but whenever I asked to pick some to bring inside my Grandma would gently, but firmly, say no, adding that it would be unlucky to do so. 

And so the lovely snowdrops remained outside, and we admired them from afar.

This superstition seems to be one that many people in other parts of the country shared. It was commonly believed that to bring a posy of snowdrops into your house was an invitation for death to follow. Perhaps this was because they were planted by the Victorians on the graves of their loved ones, and hence they became tainted by association with the churchyard. Others have sought to explain the superstition by suggesting that the small white petals resemble a shroud. Speaking for myself I find it difficult to see anything shroud-like in the delicate beauty of the snowdrop, but each to their own as they say.

In earlier ages they were known as Candlemas Bells owing to how they were normally in bloom on Candlemas Day, the second of February, when people traditionally celebrated the Virgin's ritual purification 40 days after the birth of Jesus. As a result, in religious art, they were sometimes used as the symbol of the Virgin; their lowered heads a reminder of the Virgin's sorrow at the Crucifixion. 

Snowdrops are not native to our shores. It's thought that they were first introduced by Italian monks who carried them from their homeland to plant around the Cistercian houses of pre-Reformation England. This would mean they probably arrived here in the twelfth or thirteenth century when the great age of monastery-building was underway, and large numbers of people in Holy Orders were flooding into the country to assist with their foundation.

Perhaps those early monks carried them along as part of their medicine chests.  In the Middle Ages snowdrop bulbs were sometimes used as a rub-on treatment for headaches and as an antidote to certain poisons.  In the Caucuses people have long believed that they would remain young and retain the full sharpness of their mental faculties if they ate the odd snowdrop bulb. Modern medicine has vindicated their faith in the health-giving properties of the snowdrop, having established that the chemical galantamine, present in the snowdrop bulbs, helps to arrest the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

Osterley has a very special winter garden, where there are a great many other things vying with the snowdrops for your attention. I enjoyed admiring its fine bones. My mum always says that a good garden stands out in winter as you get to see all the underlying shapes and the structural backdrop when the leaves fall. She's not wrong. The centre of the garden (above) has been skilfully designed so that your eye travels on into the middle distance, between the trees and along the grassy path. I also love how they've used the red dog wood to add a dash of colour on the left hand side.

I loved the dwarf irises ... 

... the hellebores ...

.. and the crocus ...

... and I was blown away to find a sheltered bank, where a few daffodils were stealing a march and already blowing their trumpets ... .

All things told it was a very fine stroll. 

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Home-made fat balls ... yummy (if you're a bird)

Emi and I have been enthusiastically watching the birds these past few days. He's got his half-term holidays this week, and, as there's a zoo in our back garden, it's hard not to notice. Quite the opposite. In fact the challenge comes in tearing yourself away from the kitchen window. We've got our cameras sitting at the ready, waiting for something cute and/ or interesting to show up and be snapped.

This little Black Cap is one of my favourite visitors. He's really tenacious and always comes back for more.

We've been buying fat balls from the supermarket, but they look all sort of grey and grungy - not that our feathered friends seem to mind. Yesterday, however, we decided to have a go at making our own. And I have to report that they've been going down a storm outside with the avian hordes.

I'd got some left-over Trex baking fat which we melted in a saucepan over a low heat before adding a similar volume of mixed bird seed. Our recipe wasn't very accurately calibrated, and, as we were dancing around to Emi's play list, which includes at least six renditions of the theme tune from Ghostbusters, it was all a bit happy-go-lucky. But that's always the type of cooking that produces the best food. It's almost as though you stir a little bit of your good humour into the mix as you go.

Anyway our mixture didn't look desperately appetising, but then, as we didn't have feathers or beaks, we decided that our opinions probably didn't count for much.

When everything was suitably gooey and all mixed up we poured it into a clean ice-cream carton and stored it in the fridge overnight so that it could cool down and harden up.

The resulting mixture was a bit like a not-very-crispy trail bar for birds. We scooped great balls of it out of the carton using an ice-cream scoop and tied them up in recycled string bags that we'd bought onions and garlic in. Then we fixed these to the branches of the plum tree outside.

And the verdict: a feathered thumbs-up!

All the best for now,

Bonny x